European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 17: Public Opinion

Return to full list of chapter notes.

In a perfect democratic world, the values, views and concerns of citizens should be routinely on the minds of elected leaders, who are – after all – the representatives of the citizens. But there are at least two flaws with this proposition. First, it is difficult always to know what the citizens want, either because they may not know themselves, or because of the pitfalls in measuring public opinion. Second, opinion is typically divided on almost every public issue, leaving elected officials to decide whether to side with the majority or to be concerned only with those who elected them.

These are problems that exist at the national and local level within the member states, but they are magnified at the European level by the mixed feelings of most Europeans about the exercise of integration, coupled with their often low levels of knowledge about the structure and work of the EU. Attitudes can be summed up as follows: sometimes supportive, sometimes hostile, and often badly-informed. Most Europeans do not know what to make of the EU, neither understand how it works nor fully understand its implications, and have opinions about European integration that could at best be described as ‘soft’; neither strongly opposing nor supporting what it is being done in their name.

This chapter looks at public opinion in the EU as it relates to integration and an understanding of what ‘Europe’ represents. It focuses on euroscepticism (hostility to integration, or to the direction being taken by the European project), the knowledge deficit (the gap between the responsibilities of the EU and what Europeans know and understand about how it works), and Europeanism (the values that Europeans have in common, and that exist independently of the experience of regional integration).
  • Polls find that most EU citizens feel that membership of the EU has been good for their state, and that they identify with the EU, but they also reveal a high degree of equivocation in attitudes towards integration.
  • Particularly since the early 1990s, there has been a growth in levels of euroscepticism, but there are many different shades of opinion, varying by time and place.
  • Polls reveal that levels of knowledge about the EU among Europeans are low.
  • Political ignorance is not unusual, and is found to varying degrees throughout the democratic world.
  • While domestic government can work around the knowledge deficit, at the level of the EU this becomes a problem because it encourages detachment from the process of integration, and makes the public more susceptible to the appeals of pro- and anti-Europeans.
  • Closing the knowledge deficit is difficult because many Europeans are not interested in public affairs, and because most identify most closely with their home states and take a closer interest in domestic politics.
    The debate about Europe has overlooked the broader question of how far Europeans agree (or disagree) on core political, economic and social values.
  • Most Europeans agree not just on universal ideas such as democracy and free markets, but also subscribe to concepts such as communitarianism, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and secularism, and agree on a wide range of specific issues such as the definition of the family, attitudes towards work and leisure, capital punishment and the role of military force.